Adam Ottavino signed a three-year, $27 million contract with the Yankees ahead of the 2019 season. It’s not often that relievers collect an average of $9 million per year. One can tell, just by looking at how much he makes, that the right-hander is A) very talented, and B) was coveted at the moment he put pen to paper.
Yet, Ottavino struggled badly in last year’s playoffs, especially in the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros. In 2.1 innings, he allowed six hits and four runs, three of them earned. His command was off, and because of that, Aaron Boone stopped trusting him in high-leverage situations.
This year, Ottavino has compiled a 5.71 ERA in the regular season. Once again, control has been an issue (4.7 BB/9) but maybe that’s who he is at this point. The 2016 season marked the last time he handed out fewer than four walks per each nine frames.
However, it is crucial for him to learn (or remember) how to do his job as a late-inning reliever despite a high number of walks, something that was on display in 2018 and the regular season of 2019, and stopped happening in the playoffs last year.
Rounding into form
Thankfully, it appears that he is rounding into form just in time for the postseason. Sure, Ottavino’s ERA is high, even if his 3.87 FIP and his 11.4 K/9 provide us a glimpse of hope for what will come. But no other development seems more timely (and positive!) than the fact that he is unscored upon in his last 4.2 innings.
As small as that sample is, we’ll take the 4.2 innings as progress. On September 7, Ottavino had an epic meltdown against the Toronto Blue Jays, in which he allowed six runs, four hits and a couple of bases on balls in 0.0 innings. Yes, he couldn’t record an out.
But since that day, the right-hander with the frisbee slider has faced 18 batters and allowed only three hits, while no runners have crossed home plate. Perhaps more importantly, his K/BB ratio during that time is seven to one.
It’s part of Ottavino’s game to hand out a walk here or there. But when he combines iffy control with bad strikes, his disastrous ALCS from last season happens, as does the kind of blow-up he experienced just a few weeks ago. Those kind of meltdowns threaten to push him down the pecking order for this year’s playoffs.
Fortunately, Ottavino is in a good place right now. He seems to have rebounded well from the Blue Jays outing. And it couldn’t have come in a better moment, because the Yankees badly need him to be an option in October.
Thanks to Tommy Kahnle’s elbow injury, the team is already down one impact reliever to help Boone navigate through some of the most feared lineups in the American League. Chad Green, Zack Britton and Aroldis Chapman can’t carry the bullpen by themselves. Jonathan Holder, Luis Cessa and Jonathan Loáisiga have pitched well at times this season, but the lower the leverage when they are used, the better for the Yankees.
The Bombers need Adam Ottavino to be the shutdown reliever they signed prior to last season in order to make a deep run in the postseason. And right now, after a couple of hiccups, he seems well on his way to perform as such.